Hollywood Shadows

By Goodyear, Dana | The New Yorker, March 21, 2011 | Go to article overview

Hollywood Shadows


Goodyear, Dana, The New Yorker


The writer was in despair. For a year and a half, he had been trying to write a script that he owed to a studio, and had been unable to produce anything. Finally, he started seeing a therapist. The therapist, Barry Michels, told him to close his eyes and focus on the things he was grateful for. The first time he did this, in the therapist's office, there was a long silence. "What about your dog?" Michels asked. "O.K. I'm grateful for my dog," the writer said after a while. "The sun?" "Fine, the sun," the writer said. "I'm grateful for sun. Sometimes."

Michels also told the writer to get an egg timer. Following Michels's instructions, every day he set it for one minute, knelt in front of his computer in a posture of prayer, and begged the universe to help him write the worst sentence ever written. When the timer dinged, he would start typing. He told Michels that the exercise was stupid, pointless, and embarrassing, and it didn't work. Michels told him to keep doing it.

A few weeks later, the writer was startled from his sleep by a voice: it sounded like a woman talking at a dinner party. He went to his computer, which was on a folding table in a corner of the room, and began to write a scene. Six weeks later, he had a hundred-and-sixty-five-page script. Six months after that, the script was shot, and when the movie came out the writer won an Academy Award.

Michels, in the words of a former patient, is an "open secret" in Hollywood. Using esoteric precepts adapted from Jungian psychology, he and Phil Stutz, a psychiatrist who is his mentor, have developed a program designed to access the creative power of the unconscious and address complaints common among their clientele: writer's block, stagefright, insecurity, the vagaries of the entertainment industry. "The Jungians I've always been uncomfortable with, because they kind of drift," Stutz says. "They say that the dreams will tell you what to do, and that's bullshit." Instead, he and Michels tell their patients what to do. Their brand of therapy is heavily prescriptive and not always intuitive. "I had one guy who was terrified of public speaking," Michels says. "He had to learn to make more passionate love to his wife. If he could expose himself to his wife and really let go, I knew he'd be able to speak publicly." He hands out three-by-five index cards inscribed with Delphic pronouncements like "THE HIERARCHY WILL NEVER BE CLEAR." His starting rate is three hundred and sixty dollars an hour.

Michels is fifty-seven and trim, with a clipped beard surrounding his mouth and silver hair that ripples back in waves from a high forehead. He looks uncannily like Barry Landes, the psychiatrist on "24," who was patterned on him by Howard Gordon, an executive producer on the show and a former patient. Michels's manner is meditative; to illustrate his points, he draws slow circles in the air. He rarely swears except during sessions, when he says "fuck" constantly--as in "Fuck, yeah," "Fuck, no," "Stop being such a fucking baby," and "Shut the fuck up"--a habit that can shock patients used to coddling and, in some instances, is a sympathetic mirroring of their speech patterns. At times, his language is just a matter of expediency. When P. K. Simonds, a self-effacing writer, got his first job as a show runner, a managerial position, on "Party of Five," Michels said, "P.K., you need to be a much bigger bastard." Simonds, too, wrote a Michels character in homage.

Michels's office, in West Los Angeles, is spare, and generically therapeutic in its decor, with a black leather couch and, on the walls, carved wood African masks, along with his diplomas: one from Harvard, which he attended as an undergraduate; one from Berkeley, where he went to law school (he worked at a white-shoe firm for a couple of years before quitting, at the age of twenty-eight, and going to Europe to play guitar on street corners); and one from the University of Southern California, where he earned a master's in social work, in 1984. …

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